Brown Pushes Railway Safety Act During Lowellville Visit

LOWELLVILLE, Ohio – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, selected this small town – and the two sets of railroad tracks that run through it – as the backdrop Monday to promote passage of legislation he says would increase safety standards along the country’s rail transportation system.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 is a bipartisan bill cosponsored by senate Democrats Brown, John Fetterman and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Republicans J.D. Vance of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri. The bill was introduced March 1.

The bill was introduced in response to a catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment Feb. 3 in nearby East Palestine that spewed toxic chemicals into the air and soil. The disaster forced residents to evacuate for several days.

“We know that Norfolk Southern cut more than one-third of its workforce, we know they want only one engineer on these trains, we know they’ve compromised on safety when they cut back on their workforce,” Brown said after an outdoor press event across from City Hall. “Those days are behind us.”

Brown, Vance, Fetterman and Casey also announced Monday that they have called on the National Institute of Health to use resources to investigate short-term and long-term health consequences of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine.

Brown said the new legislation imposes heavier penalties on railroad companies that flout safety regulations, establishes requirements for wayside defect detectors, and would mandate rail carriers staff at least a two-person crew on every train.

“They’ve gotten longer and longer, heavier and heavier, carrying more and more hazardous materials through the state,” he said. “We can’t take this risk, and it shouldn’t take what happened in East Palestine, an accident like that to make this work.”

Brown said on average, railroad companies are assessed fines of $3,000 for safety violations, while top executives and CEOs are paid millions of dollars. “These fines don’t mean anything to them,” he said. The new legislation could increase these fines up to $250,000, depending on the violation. “If there’s a stiff fine that companies will feel, they’re not going to have dozens and dozens of safety violations,” he said.

Just months before the East Palestine disaster, Brown noted that three other derailments occurred in Ohio: one in Steubenville, Sandusky and Ravenna. 

Three weeks after the East Palestine catastrophe, a Norfolk Southern train pulling 200 cars derailed in Springfield. Fortunately, the cars carrying toxic chemicals were not impacted in the accident.

Brown said it’s likely the industry lobby and its allies in Congress will take measures to slow adoption of the bill. While he believes there’s enough bipartisan support in the senate to pass the legislation, the House of Representatives is a different matter.

“The House is unclear,” he noted. “We have bipartisan support – we don’t know if we have enough to get [Speaker of the House Kevin] McCarthy to schedule it. That’s the challenge.”

Lowellville Mayor James Iudiciani speaks Monday as U.S. Sherrod Brown listens.

The bill is especially important to small towns such as Lowellville, which has made great strides to develop the town into a recreational hub around the Mahoning River, said Mayor James Iudiciani.

“Recreation here is so contingent on the river, the bike trail and everything else we bring to the village, the Mahoning Valley and the Shenango Valley,” he said.

Norfolk Southern owns tracks along the south side of the Mahoning River, while CSX owns tracks on the north side, near most of the village’s businesses and houses.

Additional developments along the riverfront are planned, such as a proposed condominium complex on the north side of the Mahoning, Iudiciani said. The village, state, Mahoning County and federal grant dollars have all partnered to clean up this section of the river and to develop a canoe livery on the west end of town.

Other developers are interested in rehabilitating some of the older, vacant buildings on Water Street in Lowellville’s downtown, he noted.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of railroad safety and what it’s going to do for the revitalization of Lowellville,” he said. “We’re going to be a walkable, livable community. The most important part is to keep this railroad safe and active.”

Environmental safety is vital to not just the Mahoning River but also the entire Mahoning Valley, added Colleen McLean, associate professor at Youngstown State University and board member of Friends of Mahoning River.

“We know that our health is linked to the health of our environment,” she said. “Our air, our soil and our water – these things are literally our life support systems.”

Native wildlife such as bald eagles and river otters have returned to the Mahoning River, McLean said. This has helped promote more recreational activity and opened up new economic opportunities.

“If there were to be an accident here, then this would jeopardize all of the hard work over all of the decades and set us back,” McLean said.

Rail unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, support the legislation and have joined Brown to urge its passage at multiple locations around the state.

“The Rail Safety Bill of 2023 is the largest milestone in railroad safety in many years,” said Clyde Whitaker, state legislative director of the transportation division of the Ohio Sheet Metal union. “This bill is a must for the American public considering the amount of derailments that are occurring nationwide.”

His organization represents more than 3,000 railroad workers and retirees in Ohio. The legislation, he added, also allows more time for inspections to assess rail cars. Railroad companies, for example, want to reduce inspection time from approximately four minutes to 60 seconds. 

“That’s nearly impossible to do,” Whitaker said. “That’s all in the name of corporate profit and greed. This bill would hold them accountable to standard thresholds nationwide.”

Pictured at top: U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown visited Lowellville on Monday to promote passage of the Railway Safety Act.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.